The SAT Prep Black Book

SAT Passage-Based Reading

“Education . . . has produced a vast population able to read but unable to distinguish what is worth reading.”
- G. M. Trevelyan

Overview and Important Reminders for SAT Passage-Based Reading

Students often tell me that Passage-Based Reading questions are their least favorite questions on the SAT. A lot of people think these questions are too subjective to be part of a standardized test—they think that questions about an author’s intentions can be answered in more than one way, so it’s unfair to write multiple-choice tests about them.

Fortunately, this isn’t the case. The answer to an SAT Passage-Based Reading question is every bit as clear and definite as the answer to an SAT Math question. In this section, I’ll show you how natural test-takers identify those answers.

But first, I want to say that again, because it’s really important. I’ll put it in caps, too. And center it, even:

THE ANSWER TO A READING QUESTION IS ALWAYS AS CLEAR AND DEFINITE AND
OBJECTIVELY PREDICTABLE AS THE ANSWER TO A MATH QUESTION.

If the reading questions required arbitrary interpretation, the SAT and PSAT would produce meaningless results, because there would be no objective basis for rewarding one answer choice and punishing the others. If the results from the SAT were meaningless, then colleges would stop using them. (For more on the role of standardized tests in the admissions process and the implications of that role for us test-takers, check out the article on the purpose of standardized testing at my blog, www.TestingIsEasy.com.)

You see, the main problem with SAT reading is that it requires you to look at a passage in a way that’s totally different from the approach you would use in an English class. In the typical English class, you’re rewarded for coming up with as many interpretations of a passage as you possibly can; every single interpretation that doesn’t directly contradict the reading is welcomed with open arms.

But that approach clearly won’t work for a multiple-choice question with only one correct answer. So on the SAT, you have to read everything as literally as you possibly can, without adding any of your own interpretation at all. (We’ll get into this in a lot more detail below.)

After taking my class, most of my students change their minds about Passage-Based Reading questions. Actually, they often end up thinking that the Passage-Based Reading questions are the easiest ones on the entire test, and I tend to agree with them.